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Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing Your First White Paper

When I first sat down to write this article, I encountered a phenomenon you might be familiar with: the paralysis caused by a blinking cursor on a blank document. You know the feeling. You’ve finally carved out time in your day (or in your evening) to work on marketing your agency instead of your clients. You feel confident about the topic at hand; you know exactly what you want to say about it. So you settle in with a cup of coffee or glass of wine (I’m a cab sav girl myself), and get ready to hammer out your brilliance…

… but there’s that damn cursor. Just blinking at you expectantly.

And instead of your elegant thoughts flowing seamlessly out of your head and arranging themselves in the perfect order on the page, they tumble and land in an awkward, sputtering mess you’ll be finessing for the next half hour.

It’s the worst.

Look, it’s time to take back control from that silly little blinking line and learning to do so is part of the process when learning to write a successful white paper.

Blogging is not content marketing.

If you’ve thought at all about digitally marketing your agency, chances are you’ve got a blog on your website. You might even be pretty good at regularly updating it (which I define as publishing at least 3,000 words to it each month).

And while an indexable, expertise-based, thought-provoking blog is an essential element in an agency’s online content portfolio, blogging – just blogging – is not content marketing.

Your blog is the primary vehicle you’ll use to attract new visitors to your site who’ve never heard of your agency before. But it won’t do much to engage them from there. A successful content marketing strategy is designed to gently nurture your prospects through various stages of the buying cycle, all the while empowering you to better market to them. That requires gated content (or content that’s only accessible through a form submission). A common first step into the gated content world is the white paper, but I’ve found a lot of agencies to be intimidated by writing them. And when they do approach them for the first time, there are a few common missteps that make the process more laborious than it has to be.

Pitfall #1: You’re too precious about your content.

I understand that placing a form in front of a piece of content inherently elevates the perceived value of the messaging held within. And therefore, you want to be sure that the insight you’re delivering in that white paper is worthy of asking something of the reader in order for them to access it. But when the fear of not living up to those standards stands in the way of you publishing gated content on your website at all, you’re doing your agency a serious disservice. Remember, the point of content marketing isn’t to prove your benevolence and generosity with your expertise. It’s to generate opportunity for your firm. That goal requires that you gate some of your content. Each white paper has its own form on the site. So each form submission guides the reader through various progressive profiling sets, which ultimately builds out that reader’s lead profile in your marketing automation and CRM systems. This allows you to be a better marketer to them because you understand more about who they are and what they’re interested in. A blog ain’t gonna do that for you.

I often find agencies are a little too precious about their content – and this is part of what’s driving the blinking cursor paralysis I described earlier. They’re fearful their writing isn’t worthy of a form submission – fearful that their readers will submit the form and get three paragraphs in and essentially throw their hands up and never visit the site again – so the agency just ditches the entire idea of gated content altogether.

That’s not going to happen, by the way.

You’ve stayed in business because you hire smart people who are great at what they do. Your agency has thoughtful, provocative insight to share.

You’re smart. You’ve built a business by being great at what you do. You’ve stayed in business because you hire smart people who are great at what they do. Your agency has thoughtful, provocative insight to share. Don’t let a form intimidate you away from formatting that insight in a way that’s going to drive lead development for your firm.

Pitfall #2: You’re making white papers about word count, not messaging.

It’s a common misconception that there’s an ideal word count for white papers, and that they’re inherently going to be much longer than an average blog post. I’m asked this question all the time. Agencies could care less about how long their blogs are, but they want to understand what “qualifies” as a white paper and almost always, they assume that comes down to word count.

I tend to be much more prescriptive with the word count of your blogs than that of your white papers. Blogs should be at least 500 words because they must be thorough enough for you to gain SEO equity from them. If you write a 250-word blog on one topic and your competitor writes a 700-word blog on the same topic, all else being equal, Google will prioritize the more thorough post. So sure, word count matters with blogs.

But Google can’t see the full length of your white paper because it’s gated behind a form (and neither can your potential reader). So when you’re thinking about what makes a topic “white paper worthy,” don’t start by asking yourself what you can ramble on longest about. Word count is irrelevant. Instead, begin with the most thought-provoking, expertise-laden topic that aligns with a serious pain point of your prospect. Your white papers should be your best thinking and the great news is you can have them on your website in relatively short order.

Here’s a challenge: if you don’t have gated content on your website right now, comb through your blogs and identify the top five with the strongest point of view from your firm. Now stick a form in front of them. Seriously. Word count should not be an impediment to having an effective lead engagement tool on your website. If you’re taking content marketing seriously, gated content is a non-negotiable. And remember, the topic drives the conversion, not the verbosity of the piece.

Pitfall #3: Your white papers don’t sound like you.

You’ve put a lot of effort into the copy on your website and in your blogs. The way you express yourself in the language on your website does a lot to establish your brand to first time visitors. And you’ve probably done an awesome job with that. You’re an agency, after all. Aligning messaging with a brand is kind of your thing.

But for some reason, I’ve observed agencies change their tone entirely when they’re first getting started with white papers. It’s a perception issue – the concern that the reader’s expectations are so heightened because they submitted a form to access this content that you don’t get to sound like you anymore. You feel the need to sound more scholarly and formal. While you should, of course, take the messaging of your white papers seriously – they are a marquee element of your content portfolio and responsible for driving a hefty percentage of your website’s conversions – you don’t have to change your firm’s identity when you produce them. Adopting a persona in your white papers that conflicts with what you’ve already established as your firm’s voice on the website doesn’t validate the expertise you’re sharing. It makes your content feel a disconnected and inaccessible. I’ve also seen this happen when a firm chooses to outsource their content marketing to a third party writer. If you’re taking that approach, make sure you’re editing for tone as well as messaging.

Once you’re aware of this pitfall, it’s pretty easy to avoid. Just be you. Write like you do in all other areas of the site, and don’t let the format of a white paper change how you choose to express your expertise.

Pitfall #4: You’ve forgotten to be thoughtful about your title and abstract.

Despite my recommendation that white papers need not be overly verbose pieces of content that take an extraordinary amount of time to produce, it’s true that this content type is likely going to take a little longer to pull together than your average blog post. The depth of the point of view you’re sharing does tend to require more energy to craft in a cohesive way. So, it’s understandable that once you’ve finished the piece, you’re ready to throw it up on the site and promote it as soon as possible. One word of warning before you do: make sure you think through the title and abstract of your white papers.

Your white paper titles and indexable abstracts (the 200-300 word copy that describes what the reader will learn if they submit the form to access the rest of the content) are your only opportunities to explain why this content is valuable. Every reader will first evaluate these two areas before deciding whether it’s worth their time to submit the form to learn more. The development of the title and abstract should not be an afterthought. On the contrary, these sections are arguably the most valuable part of the white paper because they’re driving the conversion.

We often advise our clients to leave time in their content development workflow process to focus on the title and abstract. That means the white paper should be completed no later than a couple of days before the scheduled publication date so that you have plenty of time to strategically craft these important promotional tools.

Adding white papers to your content portfolio is one of the smartest, most effective improvement you can make to your content strategy today. In fact, it should be considered a non-negotiable if your goal with content marketing is to improve lead development on your website. So don’t let the obstacle of writing the content stand in the way of developing such a valuable content asset. Trust that your firm’s natural tone and voice is the best for sharing your expertise authentically with this medium. And spend time thinking strategically about the messaging, title and the abstract before publishing the white paper to your site. Keeping these tips in mind will help ensure the process is as pain-free as possible when you’re attempting it for the first time.

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